When Back Pay is Not Good Enough

The ongoing partial government shutdown is dominating news coverage just about everywhere. With President Donald Trump making his case last night, followed by House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Schumer, we did not hear anything that would resolve the shutdown. One thing we do hear a lot is that federal workers who are working without pay or who have been sent home without pay will almost certainly get back pay once the shutdown is over. Contractors who have been sent home without pay will almost certainly not get back pay.

Is that good enough? I believe the answer is no. The Congress cannot do much about contractor pay, but it certainly can do something about pay for federal workers. There are two actions they should take as soon as possible.

  1. Guarantee back pay for federal workers. Shutdowns are the result of the breakdown in our political processes, a problem that is caused by politicians and not by federal workers. When these political failures lead to a lapse in appropriations, there should be no doubt that workers will receive back pay. Legislation to make that guarantee a matter of law, rather than the good will of Congress and the President, would be easy to draft and would probably pass easily.
  2. Eliminate the need for back pay by paying federal workers during a lapse of appropriations. Paying employees during a shutdown is considered to be a violation of the Anti Deficiency Act and Article I, Section 9, of the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution says “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law ….” It is certainly within the power of the Congress and the President to change the law to require that agencies continue paying employees during a lapse in appropriations. Perhaps doing so would take some of the sting out of a shutdown, weakening the political benefit and perceived leverage that one side or the other might have. If that is the case, then the primary reason for not continuing pay is that federal workers would be less effective as political pawns. That is not a particularly good reason to put the financial well-being of federal employees at risk. The fact that a long shutdown may cause agencies to lose some of their best talent and exacerbate recruiting problems many agencies already experience is another reason why this issue needs to be resolved for good.

Why is back pay not enough? The answer is simple. Many people do not have the money to pay their bills when their pay stops. Should everyone have savings for emergencies? Absolutely. Can everyone afford to save money to create that buffer? No. A 2016 study by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 3/4 of people in households earning less than $50,000 per year, and 2/3 of those making $50,000 – $100,000, would have difficulty coming up with $1,000 to cover an emergency expense.

If you cannot come up with $1,000, imagine what happens when your paycheck stops. Missing even one paycheck could mean a family cannot pay the rent, or the mortgage. It gets even more basic than that. One federal executive told me his lower-paid employees who are excepted and continuing to work are worried that they will not be able to pay for gas to get to work. Another executive said he was concerned that employees would start leaving for other jobs. These are not abstract concerns about what may happen – they are real-life problems that are happening today.

One paycheck missed is a problem. What happens if it becomes two? Or more? The reality is that the majority of American households are one or two paychecks away from being insolvent. It is not because they are spendthrifts, or because they are too stupid to save. It is just basic math. So while it is easy for us to say that they will get back pay, and that they just have to adjust for a while, the reality of life is much more harsh. Some creditors will give people a break, but others will not. Even those with little debt may find themselves having no money for groceries or gas.

I know what that is like. My federal career started 40 years ago as a GS-5. I did not come from a family with money and I worked at K-mart while I was in school to pay for my education, so I lived paycheck-to-paycheck. Early in my first year on the job, I ran out of money before the end of one pay period. Then I ran out of gas driving home from work because I had no money to buy gas. My boss, a very kind man named Jim Thompson, helped me out. So when a federal executive tells me his employees are worried about being able to buy gas to get to work, I believe him. And I understand their fear.

We are not close to having a solution for our political dysfunction, but we could have a solution for the abuse of federal workers that it causes. That strikes me as the least we can do to treat federal workers fairly.




Shutdown for a Year? Imagine That….

No, seriously, imagine what it would mean.

Many federal workers, contractors, and other business owners and taxpayers being harmed by the shutdown were dismayed last week when Senator Chuck Schumer said President Trump told him “he’d keep the government closed for a very long time, months or even years.” The President later confirmed his willingness to keep large parts of the government closed.

Should you be worried about a shutdown that lasts all of 2019, and perhaps even into 2020? No. It is not going to happen. While I admit I expected the shutdown to end prior to the change in control of the House of Representatives on January 3, there is no way it is going to last a year.

Imagine the political pressure on the Congress and White House if tax refunds, which are taxpayer money being held by the government, are delayed for a year. The outcry would overwhelm the political interests of the president and members of congress. UPDATE: The Washington Post reports that the White House now says the IRS will issue tax refunds during the shutdown.

Imagine the optics and the real hardship if members of the United States Coast Guard are not paid for a year. Do we really think Americans are going to stand by and watch members of one of our military services living on food stamps and welfare while they are carrying out their mission?

Imagine thousands of Officers at the Transportation Security Administration not being paid for a year while expecting them to carry out a vital mission that enables air travel to operate smoothly. Unlike uniformed military personnel who cannot simply walk away and find a new job, TSOs are employees who can and will find other work.

Imagine National Parks exhausting every dollar they have in reserve and closing for a year. No Yosemite vacation. No Yellowstone. No Grand Canyon. None.

Imagine the backlog in law enforcement training that is created by partially shutting down the DHS Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Although law enforcement is generally excepted from the shutdown, training typically is not. The same applies to training new Air Traffic Control Specialists at the Federal Aviation Administration. Training slots are perishable. When a training center with constrained capacity closes, the slots cannot be replaced. They are gone forever. Now imagine the ripple for months or even years created by the training backlog created by the loss of those slots.

Imagine millions of food stamp recipients going hungry because they have been cut off from benefits. Then cut off school lunch programs that are the primary source of nutritious meals for millions of children. Then imagine the television coverage of those American children crying because they are hungry. UPDATE: USDA announced late Tuesday that they will pay food stamp benefits for February.

Imagine no more routine inspections of drug plants because the Food and Drug Administration has no money to carry them out. Add to that the recent stories about blood pressure medicines that are tainted with carcinogens and you could imagine even more citizens requiring blood pressure meds.

Finally, imagine 800,000 federal employees not getting paid for a year, with half of them being expected to come to work every day and put in a full day’s work for an employer that says it cannot guarantee it, but it will most likely pay them when it gets the money. Imagine the number of employees who will find other jobs, because the unemployment rate is low. Then try to imagine how how those folks could be replaced. Yes, the government can fill excepted jobs during a shutdown. Would you take that job? “Start today, work with no leave and no pay, and someday we will probably pay you. All you have to do is trust us.”

These are just a few examples of the consequences of shutting down parts of the government. Or, more accurately, a real shutdown of part of it and a pretend shutdown of part of the government where hundreds of thousands of civilian workers and even our U.S. Coast Guard are asked to work without pay. It is sustainable for relatively short periods up to a month or maybe even 2, but then the wheels start to come off. Our government is not designed to work that way and vital services are at risk.

Now imagine something that really does seem more and more unlikely. A Congress and White House that operate effectively as intended by the Constitution of the United States. Sadly, that seems even more unrealistic than the idea that the current partial shutdown could drag on for a year.